The Nanny Diaries (MGM). Everyone compares this film to last year's The Devil Wears Prada (both films are based on dishy novels that send up Manhattan's elite). Unfortunately for The Nanny Diaries, it's very much the loser. New York magazine's David Edelstein calls it "a grim slog"—and few critics would disagree. The highlight is unequivocally Laura Linney, who "delivers a masterpiece of Cruella De Vil-level toxin" (per the Washington Post's Stephen Hunter) as the evil mom/boss Mrs. X. (Although she still doesn't live up to Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly.) The mopey Scarlett Johansson and her shiftless protagonist don't fare as well. The New York Times' Stephen Holden smirks that she "may smolder invitingly in certain roles, but The Nanny Diaries is the latest in a string of films that suggest that this somnolent actress confuses sullen attitudinizing with acting." (Buy tickets to The Nanny Diaries. Read Dana Stevens' review of The Nanny Diaries in Slate.)— Aug. 24
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Picturehouse). A lovable loser dedicates his life to unseating the mulleted, megalomaniacal Donkey Kong world champion in this unlikely documentary. Critics love it—if more for its characters and pathos than as a film. The Los Angeles Times writes: "The rivals here are such classic American types that no fiction writer could have improved on their characters." And the Village Voice exults, "[I]t's all true —every magical, exhilarating, infuriating, dumbfounding, jaw-dropping second of [Seth] Gordon's miniature masterpiece." The New York Times complains that it "Hew[s] to a tiresomely predictable documentary template" but concedes, "the movie's Rocky formula proves irresistible anyway." Related: Read a Times feature on the Kong rivalry. (Buy tickets to The King of Kong.)— Aug. 24
Challengers, the New Pornographers (Matador). Dueling reviews at PopMatters highlight the critical divide over the Canadian indie supergroup's fourth album, which dials down the band's manic intensity. For Roger Holland, it's simple: "Challengers is so very good it almost compels you to think in the cliches of music criticism. And far be it for me to resist. Challengers is a perfect uber-pop album." But his colleague Zeth Lundy gives it a five out of 10, complaining that, "The problem with Challengers … is not its decelerated speed—it's that the songs aren't uniformly strong." Elsewhere, more critics rave than pan. Perhaps the Onion's Steven Hyden has it right: "Challengers might not grab listeners right away— it's definitely a grower —but a little patience will help reveal the most consistent Pornos album yet." (Buy Challengers. Visit the New Pornographers' MySpace.)—Aug. 23
Ear Drum, Talib Kweli (Warner Bros.). * Critics praise the celebrated wordsmith's new album, and hope it has enough mainstream appeal to make the not-really-underground hip-hop star more of a household name. Frustrated with the experimentation on his previous releases, HipHopDX.com is pleased, calling Ear Drum"largely the album from Kweli that everyone has been waiting for. He sticks to production that fits his style rather than try and force himself outside of the box, and pens an album full of lyrics that remove any doubt as to why he has the reputation that he does."Entertainment Weekly agrees in a short, straight-A review: "Talib Kweli delivers his most accessible CD yet." And the Chicago Tribune echoes them both: "Kweli has delivered an album worthy of the wider platform he's earned."(Buy Ear Drum. Visit Talib Kweli's MySpace.)—Aug. 23
RIP Weekly World News. The imminent death of the supermarket tabloid—its last issue hits newsstands next week—has stirred real emotion at other papers. Perhaps the editors always yearned to write headlines like: "Blame aliens! Weekly World News shuts down." The Los Angeles Times prints an essay by WWN writer Mark Miller, full of bittersweet dish. He writes that he was initially "confused about whether I was supposed to write true offbeat news, general satire or complete fabrication. So I asked. The response was loud and clear: 'complete fabrication.' " It wasn't always thus. A Washington Post feature tracks the paper's ups and downs and explains how a B-list celebrity tabloid morphed into a fake news pioneer. More than anyone else, the credit goes to its longtime editor (and "Ed Anger" columnist) Eddie Clontz, who died in 2004. The best obituary for the paper ran then, in the Economist; read it here (alas, subscription required). And check out the Onion's homage.—Aug. 22
Kala, M.I.A. (Interscope). Visa problems kept the Sri Lankan-born hip-hop/dance-pop genius from recording her sophomore effort in New York with Timbaland, so she roved the world instead—and this big album synthesizes every weird thing she found. Critics love it. In a 4.5-star Rolling Stone review, Robert Christgau doesn't hear radio hits, but that might be for the best: "The eclectic world-underclass dance amalgam M.I.A. has constructed is an art music whose concept recalls the Clash as much as anything else." A rave at PopMatters explains further: "[T]he most obvious (and perhaps only) unifying factor is M.I.A.'s own disaffected voice and her constant wide-eyed wonder: let me share this awesome sound I have found with you." Meanwhile, Pitchfork so wants M.I.A. to have jumped the shark or sold out … but has to concede a huge 8.9 rating in a bizarrely self-involved and conflicted review. (Buy Kala. Visit M.I.A.'s MySpace.)— Aug. 21
As You Like It (HBO, Tuesday at 9 p.m.). Critics do like Kenneth Branagh's fifth Shakespeare film, an adaptation of the gender-bending Arcadian comedy, though they have more gripes than compliments. Reuters captures the tone with a backhanded endorsement: This "laid-back, unhurried interpretation is tinged with the simple fun of a Disney movie." Reviews object in particular to Branagh's decision to relocate the action among British merchants in 19th-century Japan. As the San Francisco Chronicle's David Wiegand explains, the problem is more with the follow-through than the conceit: "All we get are a few costumes and shoji screens, which make the whole gimmick irrelevant." The cast gets good notices, though critics disagree about whether American starlet Bryce Dallas Howard holds her own alongside all the British talent. The New York Times' Virginia Heffernan doesn't think she really had a chance, complaining: "Mr. Branagh has teased out every manly rivalry and preserved every hey-nonny-nonny of the kooks in the Forest of Arden, but slashed passages of the repartee that defines Rosalind."— Aug. 21
Away, by Amy Bloom (Random House). This short novel has tremendous sweep: It chronicles the New York immigrant experience and also a mother's quest across a continent to find her lost daughter—all in 240 pages. And critics think its accomplishment matches its scope. The New York Times' Janet Maslin raves, "To the extent that a work of fiction can be all things to all people, this one is remarkably versatile. Away is a literary triumph. … Yet it is also a classic page-turner." No less enthusiastic, Ron Charles writes in his cover review for Washington Post Book World: "[T]his whole novel reads like dry wood bursting into flame: desperate and impassioned, erotic and moving —absolutely hypnotic." In the Los Angeles Times, Lionel Shriver reassures readers that "not a line is trite nor a character stereotypical. Working comfortably within a conventional form, [Bloom] renews and redeems it." (Buy Away. Read an excerpt at Washingtonpost.com.)— Aug. 20
TODAY IN SLATE
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What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture
Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You
Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows
Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?
The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.
Happy Constitution Day!
Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.